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Issa Promised Tough, but So Far Oversight Isn’t

Recent Hearings Have Been Mundane, Duplicative

So far, Darrell Issa isn’t the boogeyman Democrats expected.

While the Oversight and Government Reform chairman has been trying to put the Obama administration on the defensive, much of the panel’s investigative agenda has been focused on mundane bureaucratic policies and holding hearings on issues other committees already addressed.

The more methodical approach is a switch for the characteristically rhapsodic, press-loving California Republican, who announced an aggressive agenda upon taking the gavel in January. At the time, Issa said he would lead six major investigations during the first three months of his tenure.

Several Congressional aides and K Streeters who interact with the panel said Issa has gotten off to a slower start than expected for a former ranking member who already knows the committee’s headline-grabbing terrain.

“There certainly has been a significant drop-off in investigative activity focused outside the Obama administration,” Covington & Burling lawyer Rob Kelner said. “Some of that is typical where there is a Republican Congress and a Democratic president. Even so, it’s been a pretty quiet time for members of the Congressional investigation bar with respect to the Oversight Committee.”

Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said the chairman can’t control the outside world’s expectations.

Hill described Issa as taking an “aggressive approach in many ways equal to or surpassing the previous two Congresses in the size of the agenda.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry, a member of the Oversight panel, said Issa is doing a good job and that doing investigative work requires patience.

“It takes time to get documents,” the North Carolina Republican said. “I think we’ve had solid hearings, but you know, it’s going to be a thoughtful approach. It’s going to be serious policy.”

So far, the panel has held 54 hearings on everything from presidential records to foreclosures to Freedom of Information Act compliance.

Hill pointed to Issa’s continuing examination of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious as an example of the important work the committee is doing. The ATF allowed American guns to be smuggled into Mexico during the two operations. ATF officials then tried to track where the illegal weapons were used in crimes.

Issa also has used his position to embarrass the Obama administration at times, pointing to its refusal to release documents as inconsistent with its pledges for transparency.

At the same time, even his detractors note that the focus on the country’s dire economy and ongoing debt limit negotiations have made it difficult to attract attention to the issues before the Oversight panel.

Still, it isn’t only circumstances that have led to the committee’s lower profile.

Staff issues have also slowed Issa’s progress. In addition to having to fill several positions going into the majority, he lost one of his primary investigative staffers, Jennifer Safavian, who departed for the Ways and Means Committee in December. Issa also faced public embarrassment when he had to fire Kurt Bardella, press secretary and confidant, after allegations surfaced that Bardella inappropriately shared reporters’ emails with a New York Times reporter.

Those issues came as Issa and his Democratic counterpart, ranking member Elijah Cummings (Md.), were frequently sparring over organizing the committee and on Issa’s handling of subpoenas.

More recently, though, Issa appears to be trying to distance himself from the bomb thrower he had been and is instead presenting himself as a studious, serious investigator of malfeasance.

One Congressional investigations lawyer said that Issa’s approach of publicly saying he is “‘going to be the green eyeshades accountant,’ doesn’t make for a very exciting committee.”

“The net effect is there isn’t a lot for the outside world to pay attention to,” the lawyer said.

That doesn’t mean the White House hasn’t been paying attention to Issa. In addition to hiring lawyers to deal with the zealous Republican investigations, the administration recently hired former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Eric Schultz to focus on the work of Issa’s committee.

Supporters of the California Republican argue he is taking the work of the committee seriously and that Democrats have tried to make him into a larger-than-life character in an attempt to undercut anything the panel produces.

For their part, Democrats have criticized Issa for holding repetitive hearings. At least six of the Oversight panel’s hearings focused on topics that other committees examined weeks before. For example, Issa held a health care waiver hearing one month after the Energy and Commerce Committee held a similar hearing.

Rep. Henry Waxman criticized Republicans’ oversight efforts as being political and not focused on real abuses by the government.

“[Their strategy] seems to be attacking the administration rather than looking at issues and evaluating whether the government is doing what it should be doing,” the California Democrat said.

Waxman, who served as chairman of the panel during George W. Bush’s presidency, had a waste, fraud and abuse agenda. During the first several months of his chairmanship, Waxman garnered major headlines when he took on mismanagement of nearly $9 billion in the reconstruction of Iraq and the defense contractor Blackwater USA.

Freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy dismissed Waxman’s critique.

“It would truly be stunning if a Member of the other side publicly had something laudatory to say about the chairman on the Republican side,” the South Carolina lawmaker said. “To me it was so transparent because if Mr. Issa were going faster then, ‘He’s giving short shrift.’ He’s going slow so you know it’s ‘a rocky, tumultuous start.’ There is no way to win.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz agreed.

“Some of the more tumultuous hearings are still to come,” the Utah Republican said, noting that the ATF investigation is of utmost importance. “I think we’ve laid the foundation for a lot of things.”